What does whiskey have to do with building a best-in-class DEI strategy? A lot, it turns out.

When Black entrepreneur Fawn Wilson founded Uncle Nearest, the fastest growing spirits company in the world, she was so intentional about DEI practices that her method caught on at other companies.

The push for more intentional representation is just one of many forces shaping the way we work. As part of our series on how to improve productivity and happiness at work, we have highlighted advice from renowned business leaders and experts.

Ella F. Washington, a professor of practice at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, recently wrote about Wilson’s groundbreaking DEI strategy in the Harvard Business Review. (You can learn even more about her pioneering study of diversity and inclusion from her book The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion.)

We have distilled some key takeaways that you can apply to your organization’s DEI strategy.

Make diversity of thought central to your organization

Diversity of thought is a much more complex DEI strategy than simply setting organizational hiring quotas and scheduling a few training sessions for your workforce.

True diversity of thought means not just diversifying who you hire, it also requires companies to create an environment of psychological safety.

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Washington points to Uncle Nearest as an example of an organization where diversity of thought fueled profits and productivity.

“In the $70 billion wine and spirits industry, where less than 1% of wineries and distilleries are Black-owned, and there is a lack of BIPOC leadership, Weaver knew that as a Black woman she would be fighting an uphill battle from the start,” Washington writes.

“But Weaver was undaunted. She sought not only to make history as an inclusive brand breaking barriers as the first spirit to commemorate an African American and the first to have a Black master distiller on record, but she also to create a top-performing organization. Her strategy for making it happen was to embrace diversity in all forms, including diversity of thought.”

colleagues meeting over coffee

While diversity of thought is valuable, it can also be a way of hand-waving away difficult issues. It isn’t enough for your workforce to look diverse, there needs to be true engagement on difficult issues.

“Having many ideas from many people who think in many ways will improve performance. However, the concept is often used as a scapegoat. It’s a way to avoid difficult DEI conversations around race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability and so on. I have heard countless leaders suggest that since they have diversity of thought on their teams, they don’t need to be focused on demographic inequity or changes to the makeup of teams.”

Washington is crystal clear on one thing: Diversity of thought is in no way interchangeable with gender and racial diversity.

“Even if their leadership teams comprise mostly men, mostly white, from mostly from the same colleges and socioeconomic backgrounds, they use diversity of thought as their excuse not to work on those other, necessary DEI tasks.”

The best way forward is by on-boarding employees from diverse backgrounds with multifaceted perspectives and giving them the tools they need to thrive.

Be intentional about hiring practices

Many organizations have recently resolved to diversify their workforce by hiring more women and people of color.

This is progress in the right direction, but it’s not actually the first step for true representation. Washington encourages organizations to take a fresh look at their hierarchy and engagement practices.

“Every organization, no matter their demographic makeup, must be intentional about the equitable nature of their systemic structures, such as hiring and promotion, in addition having a strong focus on making the culture diverse, equitable, and inclusive.”

workplace team

In other words, hiring more diverse team members isn’t going to help anyone if the structures that created a homogeneous workforce remain the same. Could hiring and promotion policies be more transparent? Do current employees feel they can come to work “as themselves.”

Putting in the time for reflection and discovery ahead of diversity hiring initiatives will make you organization more appealing for all workers. In succeeding, you will also foster a more collaborative and creative environment where ideas can come from anywhere.

“Diversity of thought, which would come from multiple types of people, and often unexpected people, would be what would make Uncle Nearest a brand beyond its diverse roots, competing with august incumbents.”

Washington attributes Fawn Hill’s success with her DEI strategy to successfully navigating some choppy waters. She has identified four mistakes that many organizations are making as they try to diversify.

1. Lack of cultural clarity

One of the biggest problems that companies face with their DEI strategy is not properly defining their company vision. If organizations cannot concisely communicate who they are and what they stand for, even the best DEI program cannot bridge the shortfall.

“Weaver fosters diversity of thought even before you work there: Prior to submitting a resume, you must review the company’s 10 core principles, which include clear statements about its devotion to diversity.”

2. Lack of intentionality from the start

It’s often a watershed moments when organizations identify the need to diversify their workforce by hiring more intentionally. However, this effort will be doomed without an attempt to evaluate internal systems and their effect on your company’s culture.

“Most companies today, even the ones we identify as doing the best with DEI, are playing catch-up on their diversity demographics. Weaver set out to create a team that would embody diversity of thought and reflect the world around her. Yes, this would help her create the internal culture she desired, but equally crucial it would be a team that would be a significant competitive advantage in the wine and spirits marketplace.”

colleagues in a meeting

Take a look at the team in place. What is working, and what isn’t? What parts of your company culture do you want to keep, and what should be diversified? It’s unfair to expect new hires to speak up about issues that should have been corrected before they were brought on.

3. Failure to acknowledge trade-offs in your DEI strategy

Another big mistake Washington sees organizations making is all-or-nothing thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“The reality is that there are less people from underrepresented groups in major industries such a finance and technology (and spirits) because of systemic structures that have historically limited access and opportunity. To build up a pipeline of diverse talent, tradeoffs need to be built into the strategy.”

If your industry as a whole has been called out for a lack of diversity, you will be hard pressed to assemble your “dream team” of a gender-balanced, racially diverse staff with a variety of experiences and perspectives.

“Leaders must acknowledge these disparities and realize it will take and time and sacrifices to fix it. If an organization is committed to increasing their diversity of leadership, they may have to keep a position open longer than expected to identify a diverse slate of candidates.”
Practically speaking, holding out for your dream candidate can also mean paying a higher salary than you might have expected.

4. Assuming a diverse workforce doesn’t need a formal DEI strategy

Finally, Washington stresses that having a diverse workforce in place does not eliminate the need for a nuanced approach.

“Achieving demographic diversity, as Uncle Nearest has, doesn’t obviate the need for DEI programs. You need to continue to build that culture through programming or else the job of DEI falls to the diverse people within it sharing their lived experiences and navigating difficult conversations about what it is like to be gay, or Indigenous, or disabled. It’s unfair to expect them to be the representative for their entire group.”

The best DEI strategy is holistic, and designed to make sure that everyone is working from the same playbook regardless of their background.

“The reality is that while people can share their individual experiences, most people without specific education or training are not equipped to navigate conversations about difficult DEI topics. Thus, even organizations with demographic diversity and diversity of thought benefit from professional DEI education and other initiatives to create inclusivity.”

colleagues eating lunch

In other words, it’s unfair to expect individual members of staff to embody the concerns of an entire demographic of the population. True diversity of thought requires outside perspectives as well, which is why Washington stresses the need for professional education.

Putting it all together

The key to a robust DEI strategy is to marry social diversity with diversity of thought.

“True DEI progress requires both types of diversity. Diversity of thought isn’t always found where you expect it to be found,” Washington writes.

Be intentional and transparent about where your organization is at today vs. where it needs to go. It takes time and patience to achieve organizational change – but the effort is well worth it.

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